On Friday, July 5, a long-range ballistic missile blasted into the skies from the U.S. military’s remote Pacific Ocean test site at Kwajalein Atoll. Meanwhile, a second missile launched from its silo on the West Coast with instructions to intercept and destroy it. Somewhere along the way, the second missile failed. “An intercept was not achieved,” the Pentagon stated abruptly.

The price tag for just this test: a cool $214 million.

The failure is yet another major setback for a missile defense program projected to cost $170 billion between 1983 and 2017 and intended to protect the United States from a nuclear attack. The missed intercept also risks delaying further tests, and worse, calls into question one of the Pentagon’s primary claims about whether its missile defense system can really work at all.

The test involved a 140-pound CE-1 “kill vehicle” equipped with maneuvering thrusters, which should propel it towards an incoming ballistic missile before the interceptor separates from the thrusters and physically collides with the target. The two missiles approach each other at a combined speed approaching 15,000 miles per hour. Such an intercept is a complex task, to say the least.

Exactly what caused the recent miss is currently unknown, according to the Defense Department. “Program officials will conduct an extensive review to determine the cause or causes of any anomalies which may have prevented a successful intercept,” the military’s statement added. But don’t hold your breath. It’s still not entirely clear what caused another failure in 2010 with a similar interceptor.

“Our faith in our missile defense program remains strong and every healthy organization takes stock of mishaps when they occur and that’s what we’re doing now,” Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters.

But whatever caused the blunder, it doesn’t look good. “Whether you count the performance over the past five years or the last 10, clearly the [ground-based missile defense] system is something the U.S. military, and the American people, cannot depend upon,” Philip Coyle of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation said in a statement.

Congress, for the time being, agrees with Coyle. The Pentagon’s latest kill vehicle, the CE-2, is currently in limbo, with no new vehicles being produced until the military can carry out a successful test. Two unsuccessful tests in 2010 provoked Congress to mandate a halt to deliveries from manufacturer Raytheon.

But to understand just how foreboding the Pentagon’s latest failure is, you need to look back to the early days when the United States first began trying to shoot down ballistic missiles in mid-air.

SDI concept. Air Force illustration

Cutting corners

Missile defense technology dates to the 1950s, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union scrambled to find ways to shoot down each others’ bombers and, then, nuclear-tipped ICBMs before they could deliver a devastating strike. The U.S. experimented with several programs with names like Project Nike, Sentinel and Safeguard. They were too expensive, risked harming relations with the Soviets and likely wouldn’t work against ICBMs in an actual war, anyway.

But the political, economic and military calculus would begin to change under Pres. Ronald Reagan. Reagan envisioned a system of orbital laser weapons called the Strategic Defense Initiative (or “Star Wars”) which would zap missiles once they entered the outer atmosphere on the way to their targets — during their “mid-course” phase, in missile parlance — and before they re-entered the atmosphere at extreme “terminal phase” speeds.

Lasers were later deemed wildly impractical. But the basic program survives under the renamed Missile Defense Agency. The agency’s mission has changed from stopping a full-scale Soviet attack to defeating the relatively more manageable threat of a lone — or scattered — nuclear missiles launch from rogue states like North Korea and Iran.

The program also separated into three branches. There’s THAAD — short for “Terminal High Altitude Area Defense” — and GMD, or “Ground-Based Midcourse Defense.” THAAD is meant to hit missiles after they’ve re-entered the atmosphere. GMD is for when they’re still in space. A third program, called Aegis, is for shooting down missiles from warships.

The new programs — and shifting priorities — started causing problems. Provoked by nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, in 2002 Pres. George W. Bush demanded a GMD system in the ground and ready to launch by the end of 2004. The Pentagon met its deadline, but barely.

“They had to meet that deadline, and they did, but they cut a lot of corners getting there,” says George Lewis, a ballistic missile defense expert at Cornell University. “In particular, the interceptor consists of a booster missile and a homing kill vehicle, and because they were in such a hurry, they built the kill vehicle with parts that were not sustainable.”

The parts for the CE-1 kill vehicle either wore out, Lewis says, or production lines ceased and the military couldn’t get replacement parts. The Pentagon developed a new interceptor called the CE-2, with new parts and supposedly sustainable manufacturing lines, along with upgraded electronics and sensors. Of the 30 interceptors currently deployed in silos in Alaska and California, 10 of them are CE-2s while the rest are CE-1s.

But in tests, the CE-2 has been a disaster. The first trial intercept in January 2010 failed due to a “quality control problem,” according to the Government Accountability Office. “Which was bad, but the second failure was much worse, because it failed due to an unknown design flaw,” Lewis says. This second failure, also in 2010, was most likely caused by undetected vibration in the kill vehicle’s inertial measurement unit. Congress put fresh interceptors on hold until the problem was fixed and CE-2 was tested correctly. Two and a half years later, it’s still on hold.

GMD flight test in January 2013. Missile Defense Agency photo

Obsolete

Friday’s test — the most recent — is a much more peculiar problem. The kill vehicle tested wasn’t a CE-2; but an older, upgraded CE-1. The test was supposed to prove that the Pentagon can keep using the 20 CE-1s sitting in silos in California and Alaska.

The systems we have today work,” Adm. James Syring, the Missile Defense Agency’s director, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2012. “And I’ll keep — I’ll keep it that simple. The older systems, which we call the CE-1 interceptors, have been successfully flight tested three out of three times.”

But according to Lewis, the latest failure poses a risk that the CE-1 may be obsolete.

“If you look at how [the Pentagon] justifies, and this is in practically every congressional testimony and press conference they do, people ask them: well, why can rely on this given that it’s failed and hasn’t had a successful test since 2008?” Lewis says. “And the answer is always the same: ‘We have this problem with the new interceptors, but the old ones work, we’ve demonstrated that.’ Now they have a problem, because maybe the old don’t work any more.”

Worryingly, the missile-intercept tests are conducted under controlled conditions. The missileers know in advance where the target rocket is headed. In an actual war, an incoming missile may be flying in an unpredictable “corkscrew” pattern, making it extremely difficult to hit. The incoming missiles may even be specially modified, able to go faster or slower than U.S. defenses can anticipate. An incoming missile could deploy countermeasures, like tiny bits of debris, that could confuse an interceptor’s sensors.

“These strapped-down chicken tests don’t come close to anything capturing the complexity of a real battlefield engagement,” says Ted Postol, a ballistics missile expert at MIT. “And these systems are extremely brittle. If anything is even slightly different from what they expect them to be, they fail catastrophically. There’s no graceful failures for these systems.”

Still, according to Postol and Lewis, the Pentagon should be able to shoot down a ballistic missile — under some circumstances. The THAAD program and Aegis missile interceptors have successful test records. THAAD, for instance, has had a 100-percent success rate, according to the Pentagon. Why the mid-course missile interceptors fail so badly, is hard to say. “The engineering challenge for hitting an object with these systems is very great. But it’s not so great that they shouldn’t be able to do it,” Postol says.

But a missile-to-missile intercept during an actual shooting war? No way.

Robert previously wrote about a stealth fighter’s terrible movie career and a crappy Indian aircraft carrier. Subscribe to War is Boring: medium.com/feed/war-is-boring.